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COVER STORY : A Special Report: Jobs : The Welfare Rut : Jordan Downs Epitomizes the Challenges That Officials Face in Moving the Hard-Core Unemployed Into Jobs

July 11, 1993|ROBERT J. LOPEZ

What if you can receive more money in welfare benefits than you can take home from a minimum-wage job? What if child care costs more than what a minimum-wage job would pay? What if employers won't hire you because you lack a high school diploma or you have a criminal record?

The likely result: unemployment, accompanied by a dependence on the government for everything from housing to health care.

In Central Los Angeles, as in other inner-city areas nationwide, such circumstances are a way of life for a disproportionate number of people. But perhaps nowhere in Los Angeles County are the problems as acute as in Census Tract No. 2421, home to the 2,800-resident Jordan Downs housing project in Watts.

Nine of 10 residents there receive some form of government aid. Three-fourths of the households are headed by single women, and three-fourths of the adults did not finish high school, according to the 1990 U.S. Census. The estimated unemployment rate is 37%.

"All of my friends are on county (welfare) and have a gang of kids," said 19-year-old Tamara Harris, a second-generation Jordan Downs welfare mother. "I haven't got a friend who works."

Although federal statistics show that about 70% of all welfare recipients leave the system at least temporarily after two years, many others remain on welfare much of their adult lives. Those who want to work find opportunities limited by a sagging economy and a legacy of shrunken job-training programs.

At a time when efforts to reform welfare and create jobs are under way nationwide, the residents of Jordan Downs epitomize the challenges that policy-makers face in guiding or pushing the hard-core unemployed into the work force.

Take Jordan Downs resident Alberta Harris, the mother of Tamara Harris.

The 36-year-old woman has had six children by three men. She has been on welfare since 1979, when she moved to Los Angeles with three children after leaving an abusive husband in Texas.

She took classes at Southwest Community College, and became pregnant by a Nigerian exchange student who was her math tutor. He has since returned to his home country. The father of her twin 2-year-olds was also a Nigerian who worked at the Jordan Downs rental office. He, too, returned home.

A high school dropout, her job options are limited. She recalled taking a job-skills examination at a local training center about five years ago. "Basically, I didn't have no job skills," she said.

Harris said she has applied for jobs ranging from an outreach worker at the on-site YWCA to a management coordinator at the Jordan Downs rental office. Each time she was told she needed a diploma.

"Not having that diploma is like a slap in the face," she said.

A volunteer vice president of the resident corporation that runs the housing project, she spends her day taking care of her twins and running errands for the corporation.

Even if Harris took a full-time job, she said it would have to pay more than the $4.25 hourly minimum wage, which would be about $429 a month less than the $1,165 she receives from food stamps and her welfare check.

The job would also have to provide health-care benefits equal to those she receives from Medi-Cal and leave her enough to pay for child care for her daughters.

"Even if you get off welfare, it's not worth it," she said. "I don't want to take a job for $4.25. It's not going to help me and my family."

Other project mothers voice similar views.

"Why should I take a job that pays less and gives no benefits?" said Sylvia Briseno, 28, a mother of four whose work experience has been limited to taking care of her home. "I would be crazy."

For Briseno, the path to welfare started four years ago when her husband, Juan, was laid off from his job as a truck driver at a local factory. An illegal immigrant from Mexico, he has been unable to find work since then.

So the family of six has become a ward of the government, living off $923 a month in food stamps and welfare. Each morning at 4, Juan Briseno and his 18-year-old son get up to scour the streets for scrap metal, bottles and other recyclables. They make $15 to $30 a day, which they use to buy milk, tortillas and fruit.

"We don't live this way because we want to, but because we have to," Juan Briseno insists.

Under state welfare reforms that begin in September, women like Alberta Harris and Sylvia Briseno will have an incentive to work by being able to keep more of their welfare benefits if they take a minimum-wage job. They will also be able to receive an allotment for child care, state officials say.

"These are fundamental changes to the welfare system," said Amy Albright, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services. "We're removing the hurdles."

But critics question whether those changes will make a difference for people like Jordan Downs resident Lilia Hernandez, who lacks the most basic skills.

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